CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. - The brilliant blaze of NASA?s space shuttle Endeavour as itrocketed into orbit under the light of a nearly full moon late Friday is just thebeginning of a challenging, but vital, flight to the International SpaceStation (ISS) , mission managers said.
Endeavour launchedtoward the space station at 7:55 p.m. EST (0055 Nov 15 GMT) carrying anew station crewmember and a cargo pod filled with new life support gear toprime the orbiting laboratory to accommodate larger crews.
?Very fewthings that we do beat a night launch,? said LeRoy Cain, head Endeavour?sSTS-126 mission management team. ?It was just remarkable right up and down theline.?
But Endeavour?sblast off is just the start of what promises to be a long, hard flight tooutfit the space station and make repairs that will pave the way for larger,six-person crews to the outpost next year.
Commandedby veteran spaceflyer Chris Ferguson, Endeavour?s STS-126 crew is haulinga cargo module laden with a second kitchen, extra bathroom, new exercisegear, two refrigerator-sized sleeping cabins and a vital recycling systemdesigned to turn astronaut urine and sweat into drinking water. The planned15-day mission includes four spacewalks, all of them aimed at cleaning andlubricating a damaged solar array gear on the station?s starboard side.
Endeavour?screw is also ferrying American astronaut Sandra Magnus to the space station,where she expects to replace fellow NASA spaceflyer Greg Chamitoff as a flightengineer with the outpost?s three-person Expedition 18 crew.
Chamitoff watchedEndeavour blast off live via a video feed piped up from Mission Control in Houstonas the station flew 220 miles (354 km) above the Southern Pacific Ocean. Hecheered alongside the station?s American commander Michael Fincke and Russianflight engineer Yury Lonchakov in NASA video recorded aboard the station. Thebroadcast and launch came on a day that already saw another spacecraft, Russia?sunmanned cargo ship Progress 30, undock from the space station for disposal inEarth?s atmosphere.
?The ISSteam is ready to go to work,? said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA?s space operationschief, after the launch. ?There?s more hours required to do the work than wehave in the timeline.?
Cain saidthat the on-time launch of Endeavour makes it more likely mission managers mayextend the mission by one day to give shuttle and station astronauts extra timeto complete their mission.
?I anticipatewe will be able to and we will make a decision to extend,? Cain said. But thatdecision, he added, will have to wait until after all four of the mission?scomplicated spacewalks are complete and engineers are sure Endeavour has enoughsupplies to remain in orbit an extra day.
Endeavour?slaunch marked the 31st nighttime liftoff in NASA?s 124-shuttle flight history andwas made more spectacular by a nearly full moon, mission managers said. Thesight seemed symbolic to some as the agency prepares to fly nine more shuttlemissions after Endeavour?s before retiring the fleet in 2010 and replacing itwith capsule-based Orion spacecraft by 2015.
?As you sawtoday we arranged to have the moon out there, and that?s so you can see theshuttle launching,? Gerstenmaier said. "As it went past the moon, that'sthe perfect analogy of transition."
About theonly hitch in Endeavour?s Friday night launch came just minutes before liftoff,when an eagle-eyed flight controller found that the door-like metal frameworkdesigned to form a seal around the hatch to the shuttle?s cabin at the launchpad was not secured properly.
NASA launchdirector Mike Leinbach said engineers were initially worried that vibrationsfrom the shuttle?s rocket engines could cause the framework to shake and swing,posing an impact risk to Endeavour?s side. But they ultimately found that anearby handrail would prevent such an impact and went ahead with the launch.
The qualityinspector who forgot to secure the metal frame in place was quick to takeresponsibility for the error, Leinbach said.
?It?s a testamentto the team that when we do know that we?ve made a mistake, we own up to it andwe go out and we fix that,? he added. ?And I guarantee you we will never seethat issue again.?
After Endeavour's liftoff, Mission Control radioed up to the shuttle crew to report that an initial look at launch imagery caught two pieces of debris falling behind the orbiter. One bit was spotted at the 33-second mark, while the other came just over 120 seconds into the flight, but neither appeared to hit the spacecraft.
Endeavour?sSTS-126 crew will scan their shuttle?s heat shield for dings on Saturday beforearriving at the space station on Sunday at about 5:13 p.m. EST (2213 GMT).
NASA isproviding live coverage of Endeavour?s mission on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com?s missioncoverage and NASA TV feed.
- Quiz - Space Shuttle Launch Countdown
- Video - Space Shuttle Bloopers
- Images ? March 2008: Night Launch for Shuttle Endeavour
This report has been updated to reflect that the Russian spacecraft Progress 30, not 31, undocked from the International Space Station on Endeavour's launch day.